Saturday, January 26, 2013

Do as I say, not as I do

In May, I'm going to be co-hosting a cooking class called "The DIY Dinner Party"*. In the school auction brochure, the tagline for the event is, "Impress without Stress!"**

During the class, I plan to give the attendees some helpful tips for making that simple but compelling statement a reality:
  1. Don't use a dinner party as a place to experiment with a new recipe.  Go with something tried and true, so you have confidence in your food.
  2. Keep the guest list manageable for your menu.  If you are planning a series of plated courses, for example, make sure you have elbow room and comfortable seating for the group around a dining table.  For larger groups, go with a buffet and allow the guests to spread out among several tables.
  3. Expect people to offer to help, and have simple jobs ready for them to do.
  4. Pour plenty of wine and cocktails for the guests, but keep your own consumption to a minimum until the dinner is firmly under way.
  5. Above all, prepare as much as you can ahead of time, so you can enjoy the festivities yourself.  Sitting down and eating with your guests is the most impressive entertaining accomplishment of them all!
I should totally take that class.

On Monday, I sent my husband an email.

Re:  Birthday dinner party

Can I throw you one on Sunday night? Was going to invite [list of six people].

Re: Birthday dinner party

That sounds nice.  Are you cooking or catering?

Re: Birthday dinner party



On Tuesday, I sent out an evite.

I meant to invite those six people, but then I remembered a few more people he really likes and that we hadn't seen in a while and I thought how it was actually really short notice and a holiday weekend so most people would probably say no so it would be better to ask a few too many than not have anyone show up because how sad would THAT be for a birthday party, right?  So I emailed 16 people instead of 6.

On Wednesday, I pulled out a bunch of cookbooks and spent hours drooling over photos and recipes. I literally had stacks of them all over the family room. I jotted down ideas for a multi-course gourmet meal, complete with passed appetizers.  My husband had requested a whole fish be in there somewhere, even though I'd never cooked a whole fish for him in my life.  No problem!  In fact, that could be, like, the theme of the dinner:

On Thursday, I checked on attendance.
10 people had said yes, four had not replied and two said no.  I texted another couple and invited them, too.  Note: our dining table seats 8.

On Friday, I went to the liquor store.
Because of course, the only recipe I bothered to test ahead of time was the cocktail one.

On Saturday, I was on a roll.  I shopped. I made dip, salad dressing, and Parmesan crisps. I made the vanilla ice cream, the caramel sauce, and the puddings. We had carrot cake and presents and celebrated my husband's birthday as a family until the kids ditched us.

On Sunday, I realized I was about to serve bacon-wrapped fish to an observant Jew and a vegan.

I had another, much larger, test version of the cocktail, opened up some wine, put out the appetizers, answered the door, and hoped for the best.

The Mixed Tuna Carpaccio

The (fortunately) vegan-friendly mixed green salad

The salmon was good, but the mashed potatoes were AMAZING!

They loved it all. My daughter, bribed to be my sous chef, turned out to be a master of carpaccio creation and a plating genius. We squeezed into 15 folding chairs around the dining table, and no one seemed to mind the bumped elbows and interludes between courses.  Food disappeared and glasses were filled, then filled again.  Once the party started, I was too busy to take photos****, but not too busy to catch up with old friends.  We told stories and laughed and mocked my husband a little before wishing him happy birthday with a single red candle in a bowl of hot, molten chocolate decadence.

And somehow, even though I pretty much ignored all my own advice, I did manage to impress.  The stress part still needs some work.

* Why? Because I am pathologically unable to say no to anybody who says, "....but it's for CHARITY!"
** The only actual way to impress without stress is to speed dial a caterer.  But it's for CHARITY, so I lied.
*** The recipes:

The Brian 49er
Featuring spirits from Leopold Brothers, our favorite gin maker.  Adapted from their Blackerry Rickey recipe. As one guest said, "These are way too easy to drink."

Fresh mint leaves
1 part Leopold's Small Batch Gin
1 part Leopold's Rocky Mountain Blackberry Liquor
generous squeeze of fresh lime juice
sparkling water

Lightly crush mint leaves, and add to cocktail shaker with a few ice cubes.  Add gin and blackberry liquor, shake, and pour over ice until glass is just over half full.  Squeeze in some lime juice, then top glass off with sparking water.  Stir once, garnish with lime slice or mint sprig, and serve.

Click to print this recipe!

Fresh veggies with Green Onion Dressing
Straight out of Bobby Flay's Bar American Cookbook.  Tangy and totally refreshing!

1/4 c. mayonnaise
3 Tbs. champagne vinegar
2 tsp. honey
1/4 c. canola oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 green onions, green and pale green parts, chopped

Combine the mayo, vinegar, honey and canola oil in a blender under smooth.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Add the green onions, and pulse just a few times to combine.  Don't puree or blend too much...the idea is to have definite flecks of green in the dressing at the end.

Serve with fresh, crunchy vegetables for dipping, or use as a salad dressing.

Click to print this recipe!

Hamachi and Ahi Carpaccio with Arugula and Parmesan Frico
Surprisingly simple, and my favorite dish of the evening.  Adapted from Dining In, by G. Garvin

1 lb. sushi grade ahi and/or hamachi tuna
1/4 c. small capers, drained
1/2 c. olive oil
1/4 c. chopped shallots
a few black pepper Parmesan fricos, crumbled
sea salt and cracked pepper
1 c. arugula

Slice the tuna into 1 oz. pieces.  Spread evenly onto flat dinner plates, or a serving platter.  Cover the entire plate/platter with plastic wrap, even the outer edges.  Using the flat part of a mallet, gently flatten the tuna until it is very thin and nearly covers the surface of the plate/platter.  Keep the plastic wrap on, and put the tuna into the refrigerator for 15 minutes to an hour before serving.

While the tuna is in the fridge, put the capers on cutting board, and smash them very lightly with the same mallet, or with the flat side of a chef's knife. Transfer the capers, along with any juices that came out when you mashed them, to a small bowl, and combine with the olive oil and the shallots.

To serve, remove the plastic wrap, drizzle generously with the olive oil/caper/shallot mixture, and season lightly with salt and generously with cracked pepper.  Mound the arugula in the center, and crumble the frico over the whole thing.

Serve immediately.

Pepper Parmesan Fricos
Adapted from this Food Network recipe, found by googling "frico".

1 c. finely grated Regiano Parmesan cheese
generous amount of freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400.  Cover a large baking sheet with a silicon baking mat (you need one for this recipe!)

Toss cheese and pepper together in a medium mixing bowl to combine.  Using a round biscuit cutter as a guide, place mounds of the cheese mixture several inches apart on your baking sheet.  Flatten gently within the ring with your fingers, so the cheese is more like a disc than a hill.

Bake for about 5-6 minutes.  The cheese will melt and spread fairly quickly into smooth round puddles, then begin to bubble.   Wait until you see them turn from their original pale color to a rich golden brown, and then take them out.  Allow to cool for a minute or two on the baking sheet, then transfer to paper-towel covered cooling racks to cool completely.  They should become super crispy and utterly delicious!

In this photo, the crisps on the right haven't cooked long enough, and were a little chewy.  The golden ones on the left were perfect.

Click to print this recipe!

Mixed Greens with Apples, Almonds and Black Pepper Vinaigrette
The salad is mine, but the dressing is from Bobby Flay's Bar American Cookbook.

For the dressing:
1/3 c. rice vinegar
2 heaping Tbs. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
1 Tbs. honey
2/3 c. extra virgin olive oil

In a small bowl, or in a jar with a lid, whisk or shake the vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper and honey together to combine.  If using a bowl, slowly whisk in the olive oil until smooth, or, if using the jar, add the olive oil and shake vigorously.

For the salad:
Equal parts baby spinach, arugula, and maché lettuces
A tart, crisp apple, peeled, cored, quartered and then very thinly sliced or shaved
A few green onions, green parts only, finely chopped
A handful of finely shredded red cabbage
Black pepper dressing, above
Toasted sliced almonds
Salt and fresh black pepper

Combine greens, apple, onions and cabbage in a large salad bowl. Toss. Dress with black pepper vinaigrette. Toss. Season with salt and pepper (be generous!), toss again. Divide salad onto serving plates, and garnish with sliced almonds.

Click to print this recipe!

Mascarpone Mashed Potatoes
Adapted from Boulevard, the Cookbook.  Probably the best mashed potatoes I've made, even better than the fancy pureé version from my pro chef class.  I devoured the leftovers with some of the roasted tomatoes for lunch the next day.  The original recipe called for stirring in some arugula that had been quickly wilted in olive oil and chili flakes, which would create flecks of intense green and some peppery contrast.  Next time, I'll definitely try that, too.

2 lbs. yukon gold or other great mashing potatoes
4 oz. mascarpone cheese
4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) butter, melted
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
finely minced chives for garnish, optional

If you like your mashed potatoes without peels, peel the potatoes.  Otherwise, just wash well.  Cut into quarters and place in a large pot of generously salted water.  Bring to a boil and cook until potatoes are fork tender, about 25-30 minutes total.  Turn out of the pot into a colander, and leave for a few minutes to drain completely.  Hang onto the warm pot, though!

Return the potatoes to the pot, add the mascarpone and the melted butter, and use a potato masher to combine.  Keep mashing until the potatoes are the consistency you like.  Add more cheese/butter as needed.  Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve, garnished with chives.

Click to print this recipe!

The roasted tomatoes are from this salad recipe.

Baked Hot Chocolate Pudding with the Works
Working backwards and having a day-before dessert is a great dinner party trick, actually.  If you nail the last thing your guests eat, it'll cover a multitude of sins. In this case, I think I had Eve and the snake covered. Adapted from Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts by Alice Medrich.  A bowl of crackly crust covering a dense, smooth warm dark chocolate, a scoop of ice cream breaking through the center and starting to melt, and then a swirl of caramel over that? Just shoot me now, and I'll die happy.

6 oz. bittersweet chocolate
8 Tbs. (1 stick) butter, cut into pieces
1/2 tsp. espresso powder, optional (but I used it!)
1/2 tsp. almond extract (optional, but I used it!)
3 large eggs
2/3 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt

6 small scoops vanilla ice cream
1/2 c. caramel sauce (see below, or storebought)
6 ovenproof serving bowls or ramekins

Put the chocolate and butter in medium stainless steel bowl, set over a barely simmering pot of water.   Stir frequently until the mixture is melted and totally smooth.   Take the bowl off the heat, add espresso powder and almond extract, if using, and set aside.

Using a stand or electric mixer, beat the eggs, sugar and salt at high speed until light, fluffy, and the consistency of thick pancake batter.  This took me about 8-10 minutes using my Kitchenaid stand mixer, so be patient!

Fold 1/3 of the egg mixture into the chocolate mixture until combined, then scrape that chocolate mixture back into the remaining eggs.  Fold gently with a spatula until blended completely.

Divide the batter between the ramekins.  You can cover the bowls with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight at this point.  If you do, take them out of the fridge about half an hour before baking.

Preheat the oven to 375, and place the baking rack the lower one third of the oven.  Place the bowls onto a large baking sheet, and bake for 15-20 minutes, until the puddings have puffed up and have deeply cracked, crusted tops, but are still gooey inside if you poke them with toothpick.

To serve, top each pudding with a scoop of ice cream, a drizzle of sauce, and a few toasted almonds, if you like.

Real Scotch Butterscotch Caramel
3/4 c. heavy cream
1/3 c. water
2 Tbs. single malt or blended Scotch
1 c. firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Set the cream near the stove.

Place the water and scotch into a large saucepan and set over medium high heat.  Put the brown sugar into the center of the pan to form a mound.  Don't stir, but use your fingers or the back of a spoon to push the brown sugar down until it is completely submerged.   Cook, uncovered, swirling the pan every once in a while instead of stirring, until the mixture comes to a slow boil.   Continue cooking until the caramel bubbles steadily, with smaller, thicker bubbles all over the surface.  This should take perhaps 5-8 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, and slowly, carefully, add the cream.  The mixture may bubble vigorously, and it's really hot!  Stir over low heat until smooth, then simmer for another couple of minutes until slightly thicker.

Take it off the stove again, and add the salt and the vanilla.  Serve warm or cool.

Click to print this recipe!

**** Many of these are my daughter's handiwork.  Not bad service for 25 bucks!

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